Afterlife Beckett: Prose in the footlights, plays on the big screen

Recent genre-crossing productions of Samuel Beckett’s work, seen at the Classic Stage Company and at the New York Film Festival, continue presenting fresh interpretations to new audiences of the Nobel laureate’s writing, a decade after his death.

The comic actor, Bill Irwin, with his staging of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, fashioned a theater solo from some of the insistently abstract prose ever printed. Beckett’s Texts, 13 false starts from the mid-1950’s as he struggled to write another novel after his insurmountable trilogy of the late ‘40s, wrestle in motivation’s fathomless urge: “What agitation and at the same time what calm, what vicissitudes within what changelessness.” All but void of concrete images, hypercritical of any narrative claim to self, the Texts are as daunting material as an actor/director could find.

Irwin’s set was a great chute of tone and earth, dropping from the rafters to sprawl down the stage like a parched cosmological tongue. He entered from above, tumbling with expert clumsiness down the rock face then clambering to remount it, thwarted by a menacing dirt slide from the shadowy peak. Pacing and cavorting among rock crags, backing into mud puddles with his tramp’s boots, he recited Beckett’s prose with a voice as adroit and variable as his lithe and quirky body language.

The barren set, taken from the Texts initial image, placed the narrator in a mountaintop trough, pondering existence. He told of a story that his father told repeatedly, the vague boyish heroics of Joe Breem (“or Breen”) who’d dive into the sea with a knife in his teeth to take care of some unknown business. After dim lights signaled the transition to the next of Irwin’s four chosen texts, he cited the dual assurances of his mother’s womb and his own tomb. After that, precious little imagery remained: a favorite Parisian pissoir and its gurgle, a caustic aside on all that a testicle or a female pubic hair must see.

The audience had arrived in Beckett’s fearsome world: “…always the same thing proposing itself to my perplexity, then disappearing, then proposing itself again, to my perplexity unsated…” Everything subject to unceasing doubt, to an ethos of failure. Even the impressive stage set became extraneous, as the narrator was never a character in the Texts, merely the blinking cursor that Beckett could move no further down the page as he tried and failed to generate a story.

Early on, Irwin dodged a sinkhole’s sudden yawn, a sinkhole in which he would end up, reciting the final text in a nod to Happy Days and Beckett’s implacable heroine, Winnie. The spotlight died on him in that sinkhole, and the audience sat on for some moments in darkness and silence before the “Bravo!”’s began and Irwin returned for his bows.

His outlandish vaudevillian talents were a delight, though the physical fits and starts took regular precedence over the words’ adhesion. His success on Broadway, television, films, drew full houses to this difficult work. And Irwin was well prepared for it, having performed in director Joseph Chaikin’s complete Texts for Nothing some years ago, in addition to playing Lucky in Mike Nichol’s Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and F. Murray Abraham.

The slim volume of Texts for Nothing coupled with Beckett’s earlier, Kafkaesque Stories, was on sale in the Classic Stage Company’s lobby. A good bet, too, for though most of the writing is best read aloud, there is a little bit, such as these Texts, that is probably not. This little bit of writing is best read alone, or with just the quags or the fours walls there to listen.

This year’s New York Film Festival presented new film versions from two of Beckett’s crucial plays, Not I and Krapp’s Last Tape. These were the first works seen here from the on-going Beckett Project, which is commissioning prominent directors and actors to film Beckett’s 19 stage plays from the screen and for possible PBS broadcast.

The Beckett Project, with the support of the Beckett Estate and funding from Irish public television and the BBC, is committed to maintaining the integrity of Beckett’s work while at the same time showing it to today’s audiences through the vision of today’s artists. John Gielgud gave one of his final performances as the mute subject in Catastrophe, while YBA sensation Damien Hirst is to film the 45-second Breath, a work that earned its own notoriety when Kenneth Tynan, for whom Beckett wrote the piece, added nude bodies to the littered stage set in his review of Oh! Calcutta.

Not I opened the NYFF program with Julianne Moore seating herself in the hot seat, a San Quentinesque chair from which she will deliver the script’s torrential monologue. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) breaks with Beckett’s stage directions to give the audience the sole view of his star. The rest of Not I consists of screens full of Moore’s mouth, shot up tight from front, half front side, side, other side, as it rampages through the script’s 12 minute gush, blurting out 70 years of isolated torment that Mouth forces, time and time again, into the purported detachment of the third person.

A post-Rocky Horror crowd watching Mouth hypostatize in looming anatomical outrage is either comically hideous, or hideously comic. After a last chilling refusal of identification, with Mouth insisting then screaming “She!” (that is to say, not I), her babble resumes, subsides, the screen goes dark and a green/pink retinal afterimage flaps on. Jordan dispenses with the play’s larger set in which Mouth, elevated and spotlighted in one of modern theater’s indelible mis-en-scènes, is accompanied by a mute, djellaba-clad Auditor. An earlier BBC Not I had full screened Billie Whitelaw’s Mouth, though in a single, head-on take. Jordan cuts instead among various angles mindful of his audience’s comfort, adding a rhythm that toys with the script’s hurtling assault (Beckett emphasized the monologue’s rabid force to one actor concerned with diction). The brutal directness of Not I, in Jordan’s film, becomes extremely large and slightly coy.

Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) begins Krapp’s Last Tape by narrowing in on John Hurt, weary in a waistcoat and hunkered at his work desk, staring out from within an overhead lamp’s cone of light. The soundtrack’s a rainstorm; streaking down an unseen window, it bluely illuminates Krapp’s crammed shelves. He rises from his chair, leaves the screen, pulls the blind. Containment fulfilled.

Krapp utters filling phrases (“Spoooooll!”) as he plows back into his recorded journal. On one tape, a pompous Krapp from 30 years ago intones noteworthy social and mental events, then delivers a scathing commentary on a self he’d just heard on a still-earlier tape. Hurt’s Krapp, hovering at the lamplight’s brink, mocks, cringes, cackles. Impatient with the taped Krapp’s on-a-dock-in-the-night revelation (Beckett’s own), he fast-forwards the deck to a lingering break-up in a lolling skiff (also Beckett’s own).

Rheumy eyes, then a desk clearing burst of rage. When Krapp props the microphone before him and speaks for himself, his voice, weaker, harsher, spews fits of raw gutterage, a poetry of emotional offal that leads to silence. The conclusion as dissipation, until at some point the viewer recalls the threatening “Last” in the film’s title.

The cinema, the art form of the 20th century as per Sontag, is also the curious strand of still images as per the blind Borges. In the movies, when house lights go up, you’re left with little but departure. In the theater, where all is not what it seems, you’re inescapable there with its risk, and with the relief as the character bows as an actor, as a person at last before the sentient audience. One can’t think of one’s self adequately when gripped in a room by great acting, and Hurt plays an astonishing Krapp. Which may have much to do with the cinematic predominance that Sontag announces for the century of self-consciousness, and with the fruitful rigors of Beckett’s theater.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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